MANCHESTER, England — It didn’t go the way Erik ten Hag drew it up but maybe the manner of Manchester United’s victory over Nottingham Forest was just what they needed. Going down two goals inside four minutes is never part of the plan but, roared on by the Old Trafford crowd, they found a response that Ten Hag can only hope will breathe some life into a start to the season that has been underwhelming at best.
Quite how United have lost only one of their opening three games is a mystery, and the biggest positive is that they’ve somehow got six points when it could have been zero. It’s hard to know whether Saturday’s 3-2 win over Forest, as exciting as it was, is a result to kick-start the campaign or whether the comeback serves only to cover up the cracks.
Afterwards, Ten Hag chose to focus on the good bits after what he admitted was “a horror start.”
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“Giving them two goals and making mistakes, but I am very pleased with the comeback, the leadership, how we stayed calm and composed,” he said. “We stuck to the plans and had the belief to turn it around and I think we played very good football and scored very good goals.
“It’s a marker, absolutely. We’ve seen this team can bounce back. If you have such a start, you need to get over it. It’s not easy, but compliments to the team.”
After the controversy surrounding the handling of the Mason Greenwood case and injuries to Mason Mount and Luke Shaw, it felt during the first five minutes that United were determined to make a bad week even worse.
It took Forest three minutes and 47 seconds to score twice, the first when Taiwo Awoniyi scored for the seventh Premier League game in a row when he finished off a counterattack from a United corner and again when Morgan Gibbs-White’s free kick hit Willy Boly in the face and went in. Two calamitous goals to sum up the home side’s shambolic start.
Christian Eriksen pulled a goal back for United but Forest would have regained the two-goal advantage at halftime if Gibbs-White’s shot hadn’t hit teammate Awoniyi when it was headed for the corner of the net.
A chaotic second half included Casemiro’s equaliser, a red card for Joe Worrall and Bruno Fernandes’ winner from the penalty spot. Enthralling, yes, but convincing? Absolutely not.
“I think every team in the start has areas where they have to improve and we have also some, and we have to progress there if we want to be successful,” Ten Hag said. “But you see also this team has big character, there is big spirit and energy and they found a way to win so big compliment.
“We have the personality. In certain moments we can definitely improve, but in general this team has the character to bounce back all the time.”
As exhilarating as it is to come back from two goals down to win, the fact that the fight-back was needed at all will do nothing to calm supporters’ worries about what’s to come this season.
United look vulnerable defensively, a situation which has been exacerbated by injuries to Shaw and fellow left-back Tyrell Malacia. And to make matters worse, centre-back Raphaël Varane was forced off at half-time against Forest and was replaced by Victor Lindelöf.
In midfield, there were occasions when Casemiro again looked swamped — as he did for spells against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur — while Antony struggled to make an impact and was lucky to stay on the pitch until the 85th minute.
With £72 million summer signing Rasmus Hojlund still injured and Marcus Rashford clearly more effective on the left, Ten Hag was forced to pick Anthony Martial as his centre-forward and, as is often the case with the Frenchman, he contributed very little before being substituted early. It shouldn’t have been a surprise given that Martial hasn’t completed 90 minutes in a Premier League game since January 2021.
Afterwards, Forest manager Steve Cooper was left talking about the fine margins that had decided the game, including Gibbs-White’s blocked shot, the red card and the penalty.
“I am not going to talk too much as I don’t want to get into trouble but I was surprised how quickly the decisions were made,” Cooper said when asked about referee Stuart Attwell’s decision to send off Worrall for pulling back Fernandes and to award United a penalty for a challenge on Rashford.
“Decisions which can define a game, you tend to see referees take a bit more time,” Cooper added. “I was surprised how quick the decisions were made.”
After narrow wins over Wolves and Forest and a dire performance at Spurs, it’s hard to know whether this United team are just taking their time to find their stride or are just not very good.
A trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal next weekend should be more illuminating and will go a long way to showing whether they’re in for a scrap to finish in the top four or can set their sights higher.
United’s start to the season has been filled with questions and despite a thrilling win over Forest, they are still to be answered.